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Americana: Changes bring drawbacks, life-changing opportunities

By Beth Stephenson - Special to the Daily Herald | Mar 4, 2023

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Beth Stephenson

When my husband, Jeff, carried in a large box branded with the Amazon logo, I leapt up from my computer. My books had arrived! We tore open the box, hoping for no surprises. My new novel “Expelled: A Story of the Polish Resistance” had finally arrived!

What a contrast from my first book 21 years ago. Almost everything has changed for an author since then. Back then, success was two parts luck, one part persistence and one part skill. Now, without adding tech savvy, a social media platform and a generous launch budget, you have little chance of initial success.

My first novel, “The Angel’s Song” was a touching Christmas novella. I saw the book for the first time in the publisher’s office. I was so disappointed, I could hardly answer the publisher’s expectant, “What do you think?” Dreams of having people lovingly wrap my pretty little book for Christmas, withered. The cover art was fine, but the cover itself felt flimsy. The promised embossing was minimal and the “gold” on the spine looked plain yellow.

I’ve done a lot of writing since then. My first book opened my eyes to my own possibilities. I went back to BYU and earned my degree in English and American Literature. I branched out from books and magazines to newspapers and soon landed weekly columns. I moved from a small local paper to my dream-column, Americana, in the biggest paper in Oklahoma. Before long it was being published in multiple locations each week.

But with technology changing the way information and literature are delivered to readers, writers and publishers have also had to change and adapt. Major search engines create stiff competition for localized newspapers. Amazon squeezes booksellers relentlessly for market share. Ebooks have seized a significant share of the market.

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"Expelled" is available for purchase online through Amazon.com.

Despite the hectic pace of change, new possibilities for my publishing future intrigued me. I spoke with literary agents and investigated the current, traditional publishing route.

When I first started writing, vanity publishers (paid by the author up front) not only had a stigma, but their books were too expensive for the general market. Authors had very little chance of recouping their investment, let alone making money.

Amazon’s free publishing platform, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), changed all that. An author can use the app to format a manuscript for publication, create a book cover and make it available on Amazon within a day or two.

Gone are the days when publishers required a printed single side, double-spaced manuscript including a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the return. In today’s dollars, submitting my first book manuscript to a publisher cost about $25 a pop. Months of waiting followed. More months — or even years — followed acceptance.

Of the over-4 million titles published last year, 1.5 million were self-published. Two thirds of ebooks are created using the Amazon KDP App and 87% of all ebooks are sold on Amazon. Amazon sells more than 50% of total copies in all formats, including paperbacks and hardcover.

With the Amazon Kindle reading app free for a computer, tablet or phone, readers have access to thousands of titles in ebook form — anywhere, anytime.

While ebooks are sometimes convenient, there’s still magic in real, hold-in-your-hand books. Now as I peeled back the packaging, a grin spread on my face. The cover is heavy and feels pleasant in my hand. The colors are true. I’m pleased with the font and alignment. I would want to buy this book if I saw it in a bookstore! I can give it proudly as a gift!

For “Expelled,” my writing was preceded by months of research and a trip to Poland. But once I started, fact checking was as close as opening a new window on my laptop. My laptop has about 10,000 times the power of that original desktop. A question that once meant spending hours searching through a library is now answered in minutes.

The average traditionally published book is expected to sell 3,000 copies in its lifetime, not counting used copy sales. An average self-published book sells an average of 300 copies. But self-published numbers are skewed by the fabulous success of a small minority of writers. Most self-published authors sell only a few.

KDP books are less expensive to produce, so new authors can sell for lower prices than traditionally published books.

A downside for readers is that traditional editors once filtered the quality of books that came to market. While that gave publishers an inordinate amount of control over public opinion and literary culture, now NOBODY filters what comes to market. Freedom of speech has blossomed, but readers must wade through a lot of sludge to find the pearls.

Huge market volume has also forced traditional publishers to chase the dollars more than excellent writing.

Today, new authors are a speck in an ocean teeming with hungry competition. Even the big publishers require authors to participate heavily in editing, promotion and advertising.

Thankfully, I enjoy public speaking and interacting with fellow book lovers. Book stores also welcome quality, self-published books. My first book signings are at Pioneer Books (450 W. Center St, Provo,) on March 11 from 12:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m. and at Hideaway books in American Fork (8 Center Street) on March 25, from noon until 3 p.m. I’m speaking in schools, book clubs and giving presentations in senior assisted living facilities. My carefully crafted marketing plan is simple — “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks.”

I love the freedom, and I don’t mind the work. I can sell “Expelled” in bookstores and around the world with Amazon’s help. I can accommodate electronic readers and those who prefer the printed page. Nevertheless, when the time comes for my next novel’s release, I’ll re-evaluate my approach. Who knows what will change by the end of the year?

After all, America is the land of opportunity! God bless it.


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